The Banner Saga – Preview

Title   The Banner Saga
Developer  Stoic
Publisher  Stoic
Platform  Windows PC, Mac OS X, Linux, iOS, PlayStation 3 (PSN), Xbox 360 (XBLA)
Genre  Tactical role-playing
Release Date  January 14, 2014
Official Site

The Banner Saga is the follow up single-player element of the recently released free-to-play multiplayer title The Banner Saga: Factions. Produced by the small indie team Stoic, a recently created studio made up of veterans from BioWare, The Banner Saga is a visually impactful mix of RPG and turn-based strategy, and, recently, we were given the opportunity to play through the first few chapters. Set in a fictional Viking-inspired land, the game tells the tale of two groups of heroes as they become caught up in attacks by the mysterious Dredge – a race of apparently sentient robots. Humanity has found itself allied with the Varl, the giants of this world, who fought alongside mankind in the last war against the Dredge. Each group travels by caravan, one leading a war party north to the Varl capital, with the human prince in tow, as part of a mission to strengthen the alliance between the two peoples, while the other group flees from a village attacked by the Dredge.

The story is delivered through a number of interactive scenes in the classic RPG style of the numbered text response. Each response given to NPCs may have an impact on how they interact with you in the future, or will nudge the overall outcome of the story in one direction or the other. It’s unclear at the moment what kind of final impact this will have, but from the first third of the game I experienced it’s clear that dialogue choices can lead to the loss of heroes from your party, due to fallings out or by you not supporting their decisions.

The Banner Saga features incredible hand-drawn 2D, which presents its grim world beautifully, with everything from the menu system to the characters presented in this style, giving the game a unique look and feel. This uniqueness carries through into every aspect of the game, such as while traveling, the caravan moves either left or right across the landscape, mirroring the motion of the titular Viking banners.

Caravans make up much of the non-combat gameplay, and it becomes apparent early on that the player’s role is to manage the supplies and the overall morale of the travellers. As you travel between locations there are a number of events that pop up, such as being attacked by robbers, or even approached by a group of refugees who want to join your caravan. If this happens, the player must then decide what is best for the caravan; if you take those refugees with you, for example, your supplies will go down much quicker, but if you decide to leave people to fend for themselves the caravan will take a hit to morale. From what I’ve seen, the events don’t seem to be random, which is a shame but, at the same time, the developers have removed a lot of the typical save options that you would expect, so your adventure becomes more of a unique journey and could, therefore, have some replay value.

As you travel you recruit a group of heroes, each with their own unique abilities and impact on the storyline. From what I’ve seen so far, there are a large number of different character classes, each with three sub classes, such as the Sky Striker Archer – a ranged unit who can set traps. As the characters score kills they begin to level up at the cost of renown – the in-game currency – and start to improve their stats and abilities. Renown is gained from completing story objectives, winning combat missions, or by reaching a positive outcome in the events that happen during your travels; it can then be spent on levelling up your heroes, or buying supplies and equipment in towns and villages.

Combat is delivered in a top-down isometric view – something you would expect from this genre – but the art style gives it a unique feel which makes it stand out, with the use of the foreground giving you a feeling of great height above the battlefield, like a god – or, in some of the outdoor scenes, some guy up a tall tree. In a similar vein to games like Final Fantasy Tactics, units are deployed before battle, and move along a square grid, attacking when in range. The unique element of the combat seems to be in its use of armour and health: armour mitigates damage to health, and health works as both a measure of your attack strength and your hero’s remaining life. This leads to some complicated combat as you try to balance attacking a target’s armour with reducing their health. Each class has its own unique ability, ranging from setting traps on tiles to attacking multiple enemies at once, all of which can be levelled as a character progresses.

There are times when your caravan is attacked by numbers larger than just your party of heroes, leading to all-out battles using all of the forces at your disposal. These wars are presented as a mix of text-based strategy and a small hero battle as your heroes attack a strategically important area in an attempt to weaken the enemy. Effectively though, this becomes a choice of either taking on a huge number of enemies in a hero battle to reduce the loses to your caravan, or taking on smaller numbers and dealing with massive losses further down the line. It’s a balancing act that had a real impact on the small portion of the game I played through, and I can see it having a much larger repercussions deeper into the story.

The Banner Saga is described by Stoic as a “mature game for adults” and this really does seem to be the case. No hero is apparently safe from a sudden bloody death and the story is one of war against an apparently unstoppable enemy. From what I’ve seen, there is a huge amount of potential for a unique and powerful story to be told and I am looking forward to seeing what happens. You can get yourself wrapped up in this rich tapestry on 14th January when Chapter One is released.

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One Comment

  1. Keegan says:

    This looks utterly gorgeous. I like the handpainted style of everything so much that I’m considering getting it just so I can leave it running on my TV, frame it and pretend I’m the sort of person who actually owns art.

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